Life Scout Jack Andraka first appeared in Boys’ Life in January 2012 after creating an environmental biosensor that detected water pollution. Now the 17-year-old is focused on cancer prevention, inventing a revolutionary sensor for the early detection of certain cancers and infectious diseases. His invention won the grand prize at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and more than $100,000 in college money. Jack recently took a break from the lab to give us the scoop on the importance of science and Scouting.
BL: Congratulations on the big win. What was it like for you to be recognized in such a remarkable way?
J.A.: It was just a surreal experience. I knew that the other projects were very advanced and that a freshman would not have a great chance of winning. So I was just so thrilled to be able to attend and had no expectations of winning any award. It was a dream come true to stand under the confetti shower and hold the trophy.
BL: What led you to start working on the cancer-prevention sensor?
J.A.: When I was 14, a close family friend passed away from pancreatic cancer. That type of cancer has a terrible survival rate, and the current test for it costs $800. I knew there had to be a better way. So I started researching and writing up my experimental design, and sent it out to 200 professors in my area who were working on this disease. I got 199 rejections and one “maybe” from Dr. Maitra of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. After a lengthy interview, he accepted me into his lab and gave me a small budget to work with. Seven months later, I had my sensor.
BL: Why are you so passionate about science?
J.A.: The scientific method is important because it allows us to make hypotheses about why something behaves the way it does. It tests ideas, gets data and then allows us to think about what that data means. And it’s OK if you fail. It’s the curiosity and finding out — and maybe seeing things no one has ever seen before — that is so exciting.
BL: Has your life changed at all since winning?
J.A. My life has changed so much! I’ve been a guest of Mrs. Obama at the State of the Union Address and was able to talk about my project with President Obama. I’ve traveled around the world and have been speaking to kids about STEM education and my journey. Most of all I tell people, “If a 15-year-old, who didn’t even know what a pancreas was, could create a new way to detect cancer using the Internet … just imagine what you can do.”
BL: How has Scouting influenced you?
J.A.: I remember learning the Boy Scout Oath as a Tenderfoot, and I always try to do my best and keep persevering to achieve my goals. I need to buckle down and get that Eagle project started!
BL: What do you do in your free time?
J.A.: I love to whitewater kayak. I was on the Junior National Wildwater team and recently kayaked the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.